The word “compassion” means to “suffer with.” It presumes fellow feeling, based on a shared experience of what Hamlet called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” — and also, alas, of the unnatural shocks that we humans inflict on one another. That this is a reasonable, indeed an essential, way of thinking and feeling is intrinsic to the idea of the humanities, the study of what is human. It is within this moral frame that Terence’s line, clichéd though it has become over the centuries, becomes so vital: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto — I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.
To be sure, few sentences can be more wounding to the one who suffers than the casual “I know just how you feel.” No, you damned well don’t is the instinctive response, and often rightly so. But here Terence comes to our aid: he doesn’t say “Everything human is fully comprehensible to me,” but rather, “Nothing human is alien to me”: nothing that my fellow humans experience is beyond my ability to recognize, to have some understanding of — to have compassion for.
In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley writes,
By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.
Most island universes are sufficiently like one another to permit of inferential understanding or even of mutual empathy or “feeling into.” Thus, remembering our own bereavements and humiliations, we can condole with others in analogous circumstances, can put ourselves (always, of course, in a slightly Pickwickian sense) in their places. But in certain cases communication between universes is incomplete or even nonexistent.
Genuine compassion is therefore an achievement, something gained only by disciplined attentiveness, not to “the other,” that empty abstraction, but to some particular other. To a neighbor. (“My neighbor,” Kierkegaard dryly commented, “is what philosophers call The Other.”) And the greater the suffering of that neighbor, the more rigorous must our attention be if we are to reach some understanding. This is one of the great themes of Simone Weil’s writing, especially in her powerful, spiritually intimidating meditation on “The Love of God and Affliction.” But — and Weil makes this clear too — as great as the challenge is, we must always hold the possibility of compassion before us, because the personal and social costs of neglecting or refusing it are catastrophic.
For the last 25 years or more what used to be the humanistic disciplines have ignored the vital Terentian claim that nothing fully alienates one human from another. It might be better to say that they have betrayed it, which is why I insist that they “used to be” the humanistic disciplines. I don’t have a name for what they are now. Not by acknowledging the power and shaping force of race and gender and sexual orientation and culture, but by treating them as a series of hermetically sealed boxes, they have made it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for their students to see themselves as sharing common experiences and common pursuits. (No one who has even the slightest understanding of how cultures actually operate in relation to one another — a ceaseless interchange of ideas, visions, experiences, and techniques — could take the notion of opprobrious “cultural appropriation” seriously.)
If you cannot see your fellow students, or colleagues, as engaged in a common and intrinsically human search for knowledge — maybe even wisdom — then you will have no incentive to cross the boundaries of race, gender, or culture. You will in the end have no incentive to cross the boundaries of your narrow little self. You may occasionally speak the language of “alliance,” but you will define your allies as those who obey your demands. And, in times of conflict, it will be characteristic of your stance towards the world to make demands.
It’s a way to live. But it’s not a good way to live, and it exacts a heavy toll on everyone involved. If our young people are going to see that there are less confrontational alternatives, something other than zero-sum games, they’ll need instruction in the humanities. Some of us are prepared to give it.